The Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA Program's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is "about leaving the safety of what you know, to go into the chaos and the darkness of the unknown to discover who you are and what you want to get out of life," said director Shana Gozanksy GS, a student in the program.
In the play — performed by a cast of second-year MFA acting students — Hermia (Mary C. Davis) loves Lysander (Charlie Thurston), but her father wants her to marry Demetrius (Tyler Weaks), whom Helena (Ruth Coughlin) dotes upon. Theseus (Philippe Bowgen), the Duke of Athens, decrees that Hermia must either obey her father's wishes or else die or become a nun, prompting Hermia and Lysander to run away together so that they can be free of Athenian law. Helena and Demetrius follow them into the woods, where, in a world of fairies, magical revelers and love potions, their traditional arrangements are abandoned and chaos and confusion result.
While the Shakespearean language has been preserved, Gozansky used a more contemporary approach toward the set, with bathtubs to represent ponds or beds. In one scene, Lysander pulls out incriminating photobooth pictures of Helena and Demetrius.
"It's not set in a specific time or place," Gozansky said. But "we wanted to create characters that people could identify with and relate to immediately, and in that sense we have modernized it."
Costumes are also used well to reinforce the distinction between the world of Athenians ruled by Theseus and the ephemeral Fairyland of Titania (Mia Ellis) and Oberon (Brough Hansen). The four lovers are first seen in formal black-and-white uniform, while the magical creatures introduced in the next scene don colorful, tribal wear in a scene reminiscent of "The Lion King." But as the lovers travel deeper into the woods, layers of their clothing come off. They are transformed by the magical forest, left in tattered, minimal clothing, with flaming red leaves in their hair.
In the wilderness, the audience is invited to explore the relationships between the characters and question the true nature of love. Gozansky emphasizes the fickleness of love: In one moment, Lysander cannot keep his hands off Hermia, and in the next, influenced by a potion, he tries to physically pry her off him, cruelly calling her a "tawny Tartar" and a "dwarf."
The jealousy that poisons friendships is also beautifully illustrated. Helena coldly half-hugs Hermia when she declares that she is running away, then excitedly reveals Hermia's secret to Demetrius because she can gain from doing so.
In another amusing scene, when Lysander begins to dote on Helena, Hermia breaks into a rage, threatening to scratch Helena's eyes out and calling her a "juggler" and a "canker blossom." Helena runs away in fear, inadvertently riling Hermia up further by commenting on how "low" she is — Hermia takes it as an insult to her height. The four lovers throw balls of vines at one another, jumping niftily from bathtub to bathtub, driven by love, hatred and confusion.
One of the highlights of the play is Bottom (Ricky Oliver), who is rehearsing a play to perform in front of the Duke. In a hilarious scene, he prances around the stage begging director Quince to allow him to play more than one role, demonstrating his ability to act as the hero, Pyramus, but also the heroine, Thisbe, and the lion. Oliver conveys perfectly the proud and stubborn but lovable nature of Bottom, who is transformed into a donkey and ends up in the arms of Titania, who has been drugged by Oberon to fall in love with a "vile thing." Later, Bottom delivers the famous "I have had a dream" soliloquy wearing nothing but wet underwear.
"Pyramus and Thisbe," the play within the play, is masterfully performed, with Lovell Holder playing the timid, apologetic Lion who assures female audience members that they need not fear his roaring. Caroline Kaplan and Alexandra Lawrence act as a very animated (and entertaining) Wall and Moonshine, respectively.
The scenes fluidly transition, complemented by mystical music to distinguish between the dual worlds of the Athenians and the Fairyland creatures. The actors also move in a crisp, purposeful manner, with perfectly timed simultaneous head movements that add to the comic element of the play. While the musical number ("Home") at the end is a little forced, it effectively sets the stage for Puck's (Kevaughn Harvey) final soliloquy, in which he apologizes to the audience if the play has offended and encourages them to simply think of it as a dream if it has.
With a talented cast and quirky costumes and set design, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" provides not only a lot of laughs, but the lingering feeling of having had a whimsical, highly entertaining dream.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs at Brown/Trinity Rep's Pell Chafee Performance Center through Monday. Tickets are $10.